This is a repost of an article I first posted last September. Homebrewing season is upon us. Here’s how to prepare.
With temperatures cooling off, many homebrewers who lack a modified fridge or chest freezer for fermentation temperature control are going to resume active homebrewing. Likewise, homebrew competitions are more frequent through the fall, winter and spring than in the summer, so competitive brewers have more incentive to brew. One thing that can help you have a more productive and enjoyable “brewing season” is a little planning.
Making a plan will involve considering how much time can allot to brewing and what special occasions you really want to brew for. This will allow you to set priorities, as well as plan so that your beers are ready on time.
One way to start planning is to take a calendar and first mark any special occasions you want to brew for. Do you want a spiced holiday ale for Christmas? A pumpkin ale for Thanksgiving? Are there contests you want to enter? Birthdays? Parties? Work backward from these dates and pencil in when you would need to brew these beers. Also mark when you would need to rack or keg them, and any other needed tasks. You don’t always need to mark an exact day, you can also specify a window. For example, maybe you’ll want to bottle your spiced holiday ale the first week in December, to give it time to bottle condition., but the exact day doesn’t matter.
Another thing you can mark is when your beers should be conditioned and ready. Mark the span of time, even if it’s a guess, encompassing how long the beer will last. That way you can look for “holes” in your calendar when you might be low on homebrew.
Planning ahead also gives you the opportunity to brew a series of beers, each pitched with the yeast of the previous beer. You might, for example, brew a low-gravity English bitter, then use the yeast to pitch to your British barley wine. (Or perhaps you schedule an ESB in the middle of those two.) Or maybe you make a helles followed by an Octoberfest. Or maybe you just want to brew your favorite pale ale several times in a row, to tweak it or try out new hop varieties. Generally, it’s best to pitch fermenter-harvested yeast to a batch that’s of equal or higher gravity, equal or darker color and equal or higher bitterness.
Another benefit of planning is that you can stock up on what you need and minimize the number of trips to your local homebrew shop. If your ‘local” shop is a sizable distance away, this becomes more important. It is also possible that buying some ingredients or expendables in bulk will save you money. For example, the price of grain by the sack is usually cheaper than by the pound.
If you have a friend who homebrews, consider planning together and combining your purchases if it means more savings for buying in bulk. At a minimum, it’s an excuse to get together and drink homebrew. (In addition, you might want to also arrange a six-pack swapping agreement.)
The annual hop harvest is always right around the beginning of “homebrewing season,” so may want to wait until the new crop is in before stocking up on hops. Also, when stocking up, be aware of ingredients that are better off purchased fresh. Stored in a cool, dry place, malted grains and dried malt extract will last for at least 8 months. Liquid malt extract, however, will start to go stale and darken within a few months. Likewise liquid yeast has an expiration date on it and will be fresher if you buy it as you go. If they stay frozen, hops can be usable for a couple years, but their alpha acid rating continually declines. (Some brewers purposely age their hops because they claim they get finer aroma from them. Most, however, use whole hops or pellets in the year they were harvested. The liquid hop extract that most big commercial brewers use lasts essentially forever.)
One thing you should stock up on is non-perishable expendables. Stocking up for the season on these saves time and the annoyance of standing in the checkout line of your local homebrew shop wondering if you are out of Irish moss. Count the brews you have planned and see how much cleaning and sanitizing solution you will need. Estimate the amount of mineral salts, such as gypsum and calcium chloride, you will use. Irish moss will easily remain viable for at least a couple years and bottle caps will last “forever,” so get what you’ll need for the year. Having a bit of dried malt extract on hand, even if you’re an all-grain brewer, can come in handy in a pinch (and you should be making yeast starters anyway). Likewise, having an extra packet of dried yeast in your fridge as backup can be a life saver if a fermentation doesn’t start on time. (This is doubly true if you don’t have a local homebrew shop to swing by after work.) While you’re at it, if you use those little red oxygen cylinders for oxygenation, make sure always you’ve got one unopened in case your current cylinder runs out. Likewise, keeping a second propane tank filled has saved me more times than I’d like to count. (A second CO2 tank isn’t such a bad thing to have, either.)
Stocking up on things you are likely to use, and especially items that aren’t going to go bad if you don’t use them this year, lets you approach every brew day knowing that you’ve got what it takes to brew.
Refurbish Your Brewery
The start of brewing season is also a good excuse to refurbish your brewery. If some things have gotten worn out, replace them before your brewing gets into full swing. Look especially at the cheap stuff — tubing, clamps, etc. — and replace anything that looks worn enough to be hard to clean. (If you brew sours beers, you can assemble a collection of older, but still usable, racking canes, tubing, etc. that you’ll only use for sours.)
Also, give everything a good cleaning. If you keg, clean the lines to your taps (and consider if your O-rings might need to be replaced). The start of brewing season is also a great time to consider upgrades, especially if your brewery has an identifiable weakest link (like an undersized wort chiller).
Planning vs. Spontaneity
Some homebrewers may say to themselves, “I don’t want to plan, I just want to brew when the urge hits me. When I see an interesting recipe, I’ll just go to my homebrew shop and get the ingredients.” And this is fine. Homebrewing shouldn’t be a chore. However, if you know you’re going to brew anything at all, stocking up on non-perishable items and cleaning and spiffing up your brewery gives you the flexibility to be spontaneous — and doubly so if you’re stocked up on ingredients.
In any case, the time you spend planning should — over the course of the brewing season — save you time (as well as frustration and money). If you know you’re likely to brew only two or three batches next year, and your local homebrew shop is right around the corner, planning is going to be a waste of time. However, if you know you want to brew a lot, plan what you can — you can always leave some weekends blank, to be filled in by future inspiration. And, don’t let your plan become a straightjacket — if you want to shift gears at some point, just do it.
Finally, follow up on your plan by keeping a brewing notebook. Record everything, including what you run out of, as you brew. In doing so, you’ll get to know how many brews you get out a propane tank. How many brews will those little oxygen cylinders last? How much beer can you push before needing to refill my CO2 tanks? Learning these things will help you plan faster and better next year, and leave you more time to enjoy your brewing.
Brewing Season Checklist
Use your brewing plan to determine what you need and in what quantities
Stock Up On
Beer line cleaner
Mineral salts (gypsum, calcium chloride, etc.)
Irish moss or Whirlfloc
Backup dried yeast
Dried malt extract — for yeast starters
Ingredients you know you will use and that will keep
Oxygen cylinders — at least have one spare
Fill propane tank(s) — having a spare tank is well worth it
Fill CO2 tank(s) — having a spare is helpful
Old, gunky tubing or beer line
Racking canes, tips that can’t be cleaned
Worn bucket fermenters
Clamps that are failing
HEPA filters for aeration line
Filters or membrane in water filter
Cracked or smelly keg O-rings
Gunky fermentation locks or soiled stoppers
Anything you know won’t last through the season
What’s the weakest link in your brewery?